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Authors: Luke; Short

Marauders' Moon

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Marauders' Moon

Luke Short

CHAPTER ONE

If “Iron Hat” Petty had not been so mad when he climbed the windmill tower behind the O. K. corral, he might have seen it. He didn't, though. He ignored the shadeless and wind-bitten main street of Wagon Mound below and, with a length of bailing wire in his free hand, turned to the splintered pump shaft and cursed.

So the men on each of the four main corners of town went unnoticed. Not that they weren't obvious to the people on the street—and there were many of them—but Iron Hat would have read some order into their placement. If he had seen them, he would have immediately noticed they wore the straight-brimmed, low-crowned, and dented Stetsons of the Montana country. And seeing this, he would have studied them closer, noting that the man catty-corner from the bank stood at the tie-rail in front of three big-boned and sleek north country horses. Across the side street from him and leaning against the front of the sheriff's office, the second man was slowly rolling a cigarette. The third, catty-corner from him, lounged on the tie-rail before two ground-haltered horses. The fourth man Iron Hat could not have seen, because he was leaning against the bank wall under the big window, looking up and down the street.

Seeing this man, Iron Hat could have guessed where the fifth man was, but he didn't see. About to climb down the ladder after a tool, Iron Hat only looked out on the broad plain surrounding the town. He saw two riders just entering on the east road, and he did notice that instead of riding abreast, they rode in single file. Iron Hat guessed right this time, because, even though he couldn't make out the rifle across the saddle of the man in the rear, he knew it was there, and he wondered idly and without much interest, as an old man will, what prisoner was being brought in.

The man holding the rifle across his thighs could have told Iron Hat it was Webb Cousins. He could have told him that he'd ridden close to a hundred and fifty miles, and across a wide desert, to get him, but very likely he would not have answered any one's questions now. He was a short-tempered deputy at this moment.

“Pull up, Cousins,” he said to the man ahead.

The man on the big roan reined in and looked back over his shoulder, presenting to the deputy sheriff of Wintering County, the next to the south, a lean and sober face with a rash of freckles across the cheeks and forehead. He might have been twenty-six. His fists, resting folded on the saddle horn, were square, bony, like the set of his overbroad shoulders under the faded blue shirt, wet with perspiration. His dusty Stetson was pushed back a little, so that it rode at a careless angle atop a thick thatch of red hair; and his worn Levis and scuffed cow-boots contrived, with the Stetson, to give him an air of a man not over troubled by what was waiting for him. Rain gray and mocking eyes under thick eyebrows followed the approach of the deputy, whose carbine was cocked, pointed.

“Put out your hand,” the deputy said surlily, at the same time fumbling in his saddlebags for a pair of handcuffs, which he eventually brought out.

Cousins drawled, “You readin' palms now?”

There was something in the sleep-famished eyes and harried heavy face of the deputy that was just as ugly as his voice. With a quick gesture, he looped the cuffs over the saddle horn and palmed up a worn six-gun, which he cocked and leveled at Cousins, sheathing his carbine with the other hand.

“The poster said alive or dead. Take your choice,” Deputy McWilliams said.

Cousins said nothing.

“I said, ‘Put out your hand.'”

Cousins crossed his right hand over and held it out.

“The other, damn you!”

Webb complied, grinning faintly. McWilliams locked Webb's left wrist to his own right, thus placing his carbine and six-gun, both holstered on the left side, farthest from Cousins. McWilliams was a heavy man, middle-aged, inclined to weight, some of which was in his full fighter's jaw. He tipped back his battered Stetson now, and regarded Webb with angry distaste.

“I may not get away with this,” he said slowly, sourly. “They don't like us over in this county. But I can make you one promise. If they get snaky with me, you're a dead man.”

Webb frowned and jerked his head toward the town. “Ain't this where we're headed for?”

“No. We're one county too far north.”

“And they don't like you here?”

“No. We've been known to shoot each other on sight.”

Webb stared at him. “Then why go in?”

McWilliams sighed and glared at him. “A man can stand only so much. I'm dead for sleep, and I got to have a jail for you. I'll take a chance. So will you.”

“Sure.”

“All right. Come along.”

They traveled on down the dusty road of the county-seat town, which passed a few pole corrals and shacks before it dived immediately into the two blocks of wooden-awninged stores flanking the fetlock-deep dust of the street. In the saddle, side by side, Cousins was not the bigger of these two men, but he was the taller, and even that may have been because he sat his saddle flatly and erectly. Or again, it may have been because, for the last three nights, he had slept deep and restfully, while McWilliams stayed awake to guard him.

Approaching the four corners of Wagon Mound, Webb noticed a scattering of buckboards at the hitch-rack, and many saddle horses, but these appeared to be concentrated in front of the Lady Gay Saloon next to the bank.

He observed the four corners curiously, at once identifying the sheriff's office on one corner, and then his attention settled on the man standing before it. Something in this man's attitude, his clothes, made Webb look across the street to the man leaning against the bank. Curiosity building in him, Webb turned his head and looked into the face of the man not fifteen feet from him, who was lounging against the tie-rail in front of two ground-haltered horses. Their glances met for a second, and both were hard, curious, the man's quietly menacing, Webb's faintly amused. To complete the picture, Webb looked across at the other corner. There was the fourth man. And Webb Cousins smiled.

Pulling up in front of the sheriff's office, Deputy McWilliams started to swing his leg over the saddle to dismount when he felt the tug of the handcuffs at his right wrist. He settled back in the saddle again, confronted with the necessity of dismounting on the right side of his horse or unlocking the handcuffs.

“That's what I was trying to tell you back there,” Webb said quietly.

The deputy glared at him.

Webb lowered his voice. “And you better do it quick, mister.”

The deputy scowled. He sat there a moment longer, puzzled, then he swung his left leg up and almost fell out of the saddle on the right side of his horse. Trained to one way of mounting and dismounting, and that on his left side, the horse looked back, then started to pitch before McWilliams's feet were on the ground. The deputy stumbled away, and would have fallen had it not been for Webb yanking him up by the handcuffs. The man smoking before the sheriff's office smiled narrowly. He had a match in the corner of his mouth, and he spoke around it. “Pretty,” he remarked.

McWilliams heard him, but he pretended not to. He said to Cousins, “Get down.”

Webb dismounted. They swung under the tie-rail, wrist to wrist, just as the door of the sheriff's office opened and a thick-bodied, burly man stepped out onto the single step. He slowly put his hands on his hips and spread his legs. His black saber mustaches seemed to bristle, and his eyes narrowed.

“Well, well, a Winterin' County deputy,” he drawled in an ugly tone to McWilliams. “This is what you'd call a—”

He never finished. From the depths of the bank a sharp, echoing report blasted out. The man with the match in his mouth, the man Webb had been watching, straightened up and lounged erect, and when both his feet were on the boardwalk, there was a gun in his hand.

He pointed it toward the burly man in the door. “Get back in the clock, birdie,” he said flatly to the burly man.

From across the street in the bank door there was a hurried tattoo of footsteps, those of a man running. The man with the gun did not look over; he was looking at the burly man and there was an unpleasant smile behind the match.

Deputy McWilliams glanced hurriedly over his shoulder, saw the man with the heavy gunny sack streaking across the road, and then he said heavily, surprised, “Hey, that man stuck up—”

“Sure,” the gunman said quietly, jeeringly. “Why don't you try and bulldog him?” But he never looked at McWilliams. He was walking toward the man in the door, who was stepping gingerly back into the office.

McWilliams took one swift look at the gunman, saw his back half turned, and went for his gun.

The holdup guard across the street was watching this. When he saw McWilliams's hand drop, he raised his own Colt, leveled it, took careful sight, and shot. McWilliams's back arched and he fell forward, his weight dragging Webb with him. Webb, pulled to his knees, saw the hole in McWilliams's back and he looked up at the jeering gunman not six feet from him.

“You want out of them things, son?” the gunman asked.

“No. Thanks.”

“Okay. I only asked,” the gunman said. He swiveled his gun now and sent one swift shot through the batwing doors of the Lady Gay across the street, then he grinned at Webb, who now was sitting on the lone step of the sheriff's office. The guard against the bank threw a shot over Webb's head into the door of the office, then ran.

The gunman beside Webb looked swiftly upstreet, saw that three of his confederates were mounted and waiting there. He reached up with his gun, broke the window of the sheriff's office above him and shot once at its ceiling.

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